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‘Thunder on the Mountain’: Monadnock Speedway is like Daytona, but smaller

  • Cars line up to enter the Monadnock Speedway racetrack.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Cars line up to enter the Monadnock Speedway racetrack.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Cars line up to enter the Monadnock Speedway racetrack.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Victor Mari sits on the edge of his parts truck, parked in the "pit" of the Monadnock Speedway on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • People crowd the bleachers at Monadnock Speedway.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Dave Sutherland, Monadnock Speedway's longtime PA announcer, works during a race inside a booth overlooking the track.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Dave Sutherland, Monadnock Speedway's longtime PA announcer, works during a race inside a booth overlooking the track.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Dave Sutherland, Monadnock Speedway's longtime PA announcer, works during a race inside a booth overlooking the track.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

Moonshiners hauling whiskey during the Roaring Twenties laid claim to beginning the age of motor racing. “They put more time, energy, thought and love into their cars than any racer ever will,” said Junior Johnson, a legendary stock car driver whose father was a bootlegger. “Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey and you go to jail.”

No less than an authority than Henry Ford disagreed: “Auto racing,” he said, “began five minutes after the second car was built.”

Semantics aside, it’s in America’s DNA to chase and be chased, and almost from the get-go the crowds came to watch the likes of Fireball Roberts, Speedy Thompson and Slick Smith slingshot their way around three-quarter-mile tracks in souped-up street cars.

Auto racing in its most popular form was unveiled in 1949 when a 32-year-old Kansan named Jim Roper won at Charlotte Speedway and the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) had begun.

Monadnock Speedway opened 22 years later, nine miles over the state line into New Hampshire, between Winchester and Keene, on Route 10. The quarter-mile “bullring” is set off the highway and ringed by oak, pine and maple trees. It has two grandstands, a spacious pit area north of the track and a gravel parking lot that’s filled every Saturday evening with pickup trucks, SUVs and classic cars with fuzzy dice hanging from their rear-view mirrors.

The mountain from which the track coined its name and also its slogan — “Thunder on the Mountain” — is 12 miles off in the distance.

It was built by Bill Brown, whose brother Ted Brown was a hotshot on the local racing circuit. He sold it to a New Hampshire businessman named Bill Davis who, in 1984, sold it to its current owners, Larry Cirillo and Fred Pafume of Springfield.

“Larry won a race here and liked it so much he bought the track,” laughed Monadnock’s longtime PA announcer Dave Sutherland.

Racing is every Saturday from spring through summer unless it rains. The track is taking its “summer break” this Saturday, but the racing schedule resumes July 19.

“The last couple of years it’s wreaked havoc on us,” said general manager Michelle Cloutier. “It cost $1,200 just to turn the gate key and we have six months to pay twelve months’ bills. People used to drive up and sit in the parking lot, but now with the economy, they’ll just stay home.”

Cloutier grew up in Whately and graduated from Frontier Regional School. She’s worked in several newspapers’ circulation departments (including the Recorder’s) and found her calling the day her son, JT Cloutier, climbed into a Go Kart. These days he drives in the track’s top division while Michelle, said Sutherland, “wears about 20 hats here on race day.”

Monadnock is like Daytona except smaller: smaller oval, smaller engines and smaller paychecks. Admission is usually between $15 and $20, parking is free and programs cost $2. Scorecards contain point standings, race results and profiles of drivers like Cole Littlewood, who said he put the “73” on his car because he “wants to make the number famous.”

It needs employees for whom the job is a labor of love — people like Sutherland, who must meet the challenge of “making a boring race interesting” and track photographer Gary Dutton, who writes program copy and takes photos in Victory Lane. It needs his wife, Donna, to sing the national anthem and Victor Mari to man the parts truck down in the pit area.

“It’s very difficult,” Cirillo said of keeping the track afloat. “People think big crowds come and we just count money. We skipped a generation with all that iPad and iPhone stuff. It gave ’em something else to do.”

Family friendly

On a hot summer afternoon in mid-June, “Ventura Freeway” played on the sound system and the wood-planked bleachers were beginning to fill with parents and children, seniors in “Old Guys Rule” T-shirts, pudgy women in dayglo tank tops, farmers in denim overalls and motorcyclists with ZZ Top beards.

“I love ’em,” said a teenager from Millers Falls named Kathryn Dilley. “I’d race ’em myself but I don’t have the money.”

“Ten bucks,” said Bob LeClair of Hinsdale, holding his 24-ounce soda and hot dog. “Where else can you go for 10 bucks?”

“These aren’t grease monkeys and their girlfriends,” said Sutherland. “That’s the worst impression people can have of this track. It’s a great, family-friendly racetrack.”

High school kids in aviator shades and camo hats watched eight cars rumble side-by-side from the pit area onto Turn 2 and zig-zag around the oval to heat their tires. When starter Mike Griggs dropped the green flag, the drivers stomped their pedals and the smell of burning rubber and exhaust fumes wafted up into the stands.

Asked what fans enjoyed most about stock car racing Sutherland said, “They love crashing, are you serious? That, and they come to see their favorite drivers.”

Sutherland learned announcing at the high school radio station in Brattleboro, Vt. “On weekends, we’d go to the races. They had a dirt track in West Brattleboro and another at the Cheshire Fairgrounds and the Rhythm Inn Speedway in Montague. I’d be watching the races and hearing this guy Ken Squier in the PA booth and he was really good.”

Squier went on to be the first to do a live nationwide call of the Daytona 500 for CBS Sports.

“During intermission, my friends would be down in the pits and I’d be up in the PA booth with Squier,” said Sutherland, who was working at a radio station when he heard Monadnock was looking for a booth announcer. “I didn’t know anything about racing. I knew about competition and that was it, but I took the job and that was 40 years ago.”

Today, Sutherland and his wife, Karen, own the Ingenuity Country Store in downtown Keene, but every Saturday he’s in Winchester three hours before the first race to get information from the drivers and mechanics that he can use to fill air time.

Life in the pit

The pit area is a community unto itself with a food stand, gas pump, portable toilets, a NASCAR inspection area and parking spaces for more than 100 cars and trailers. The quality and make of vehicles runs the gamut, including a battered VW Rabbit that 30-year-old Joe Rogers bought off his uncle for $200. A pile of coins lay on the driver’s seat and a message posted on the dash board declared: “My Inner Child is a Mean Little F-----.”

Rogers said the pennies, dimes and quarters fall out of his pockets while he’s racing and stay there until he has enough to buy a new tire. “It’s worked a couple of times.”

“I love it,” he added. “I’ve been coming to races since I was about 3 days old. It’s hard to get out of it now.”

Rogers lives in Ludlow, Vt., and for him, racing’s a way to blow off steam without landing in court, but most others have more money and time to invest. “We have good drivers and we have bad drivers who think they’re good,” said Cirillo. “You watch the way Todd Patnode drives and he’s smooth, he’s not aggressive.”

At this writing the 43-year-old Patnode has his white No. 5 car atop the leader board in the Sportsman Modified Division. “He’s a big name in the racing community,” said fellow modified competitor Scott MacMichael.

Patnode began his racing career in a red-and-black, late-model car with which he said, “I hit everything on the track except the pace car.”

He and his wife, Lisa, live in Richmond, N.H., and they own the Swanzey Oil Co.

“What’s the most common repairs you need to make after a race?” I asked.

“If I do my job, he don’t have to repair anything.”

“How do you drive on the highway?”

“Cautious. My wife says I drive like a granny.”

The Modified Division is composed of 20 of the track’s best drivers with cars designed to handle steep-banked ovals. There’s 3 inches less circumference on the two left side tires than on those on the right, and the left side of the vehicle is allowed to carry 56 percent of its total weight.

“The front end of these things is quite a science,” said MacMichael. “I worked 35 hours on my car this week, which is crazy when I’m already working 50 on my regular job. My wife hates it, most of the guys you talk to, their wives hate it, but the best driver in the world couldn’t go anywhere in a bad car.”

The engines require high performance gas that costs $10.75 for a gallon of 98 octane and $11.75 for 112 octane, pumped by a retired mechanic from Maynard named Donald.

“Duck,” he said when asked for his last name. “And I won’t check the oil or wash the windshield. I did that years ago at an Esso station when gas was 17 cents a gallon.”

If a tachometer breaks or a pressure gauge flatlines during warm-up laps, drivers and mechanics rush to Victor Mari’s parts truck. “Ever watch Pawn Stars and they say they never know what’s gonna come through the door? Same here. I never know what they want. There’s no one thing I sell a lot of, just anything to make a race car go, you name it.”

Almost anything.

A driver stepped up onto the flatbed and walked past chassis parts, brake shoes, clutch parts, nuts and bolts. “Got any air filters for a two-barrel?” he asked.

Mari shook his head no. “I’d need a 53-foot trailer for everything they’ve asked for.”

Each week, Chris Raymond drives an orange 1977 school bus up from Bernardston and parks it nose first a few yards past Mari’s truck. Inside the seatless rig is the Mini Stock vehicle his daughter, Julia, drives. It’s an orange 1989 Merkur swathed in sponsor logos like Wiggins Landscaping, Summit Ice and Rosner Race Cars.

A hint of mischief

“Nobody else has one, and that makes it hard,” she said of Germany’s version of a Ford Mustang. “It goes good but it’s been a long time trying to work everything out.”

Behind the dark lenses of her orange-framed sunglasses are even darker brown eyes that belie a hint of defiance and mischief. Five months after her first driver’s license was issued by the registry of motor vehicles, she lost it for speeding. “I’m sure my grandfather got plenty of tickets,” she shrugged.

That would be Roger Raymond, who wasn’t old enough to be getting speeding tickets while he was out rolling cars. “My father said I should do it at the track. I did, and I won a lot of races.”

Now in his 70s, Roger Raymond was 14 years old the day his stock car racing career began at the Rhythm Inn Speedway near the Turners Falls Airport. Today, more than 200 trophies line both sides of the walls inside the family’s commercial garage in Bernardston.

“Those aren’t all of ’em,” said mechanic Jody Ball. “For a while, he’d win and just give ‘em away.”

Roger Raymond drove the “162” car until NASCAR required numbers be shortened to two digits. He always drove a Ford and it was always bright orange. “It was the only bucket in the garage,” said Julia Raymond. “At the NAPA store, we just ask for ‘Raymond Orange’ and they know what it is.”

Driving with danger

Sixty-four drivers have died in NASCAR races since 1951 (including the aforementioned Fireball Roberts), but none at Monadnock, which has remained relatively injury-free.

“We don’t talk about accidents, it’s bad luck,” said Cirillo.

Julia Raymond said her worst wreck was at Twin State Raceway in Claremont, N.H., when she plowed into a car that had failed to resume racing after a red flag was lifted. “He didn’t go and I didn’t know that. Even with all the safety stuff, I stayed sore for quite a while.”

Drivers wear crash helmets, head restraints (Hans Devices), suits, gloves and racing shoes that cost between $1,000 and $7,500. Patnode estimated his outfit cost about $1,500.

“I don’t know how much anybody breathes out there,” said Raymond. “The fire suits are hot and there’s not a lot of air flow.”

Julia Raymond’s collected from between $70 to over $100 for her finishes and that’s not nearly enough to cover expenses. “This is a hobby and hobbies are supposed to cost money, same as if I was at the gym or in a basketball or softball league.”

Being successful, she said, requires staying focused. “Running a straight line every lap wears you out. Some drivers are aggressive and it’s OK, but you don’t make any friends going out there and running into everybody. You don’t make any friends anyway.”

The 23-year-old is one of a handful of women drivers that also includes Beth Adams and Sonja Carey in Mini Stock. “I don’t think it matters anymore. They don’t treat us any easier, that’s for sure.”

After a runner-up finish in June, she waited for her car to be checked out by NASCAR officials who were giving winner Mike Stebbins’ car the once over. “We’re here to enforce the rules,” said Bryon Baker. “We check the top three finishers, sometimes the top five or a random car. We’ve taken clutches out, transmissions, pulled the axles. We’ve found a few issues but we try to work with them. You’re always going to have people angry and people mad. We’ve got ’em both.”

“Everybody’s good around here,” added Ed Pickering of Keene, the NASCAR emblem patched over his shirt pocket. “If somebody comes in with a flat, they help each other out.”

As his daughter’s car was being wheeled back to the bus, Chris Raymond was all smiles. “She did a good job. She’s learning her car.”

A week later, Scott MacMichael’s long hours in the garage paid off when he hit the checkered flag and pocketed $600. “It was sweet,” he said of his first career win. “Too bad they don’t pay cash. They’ve got places that still do that, wait till the end of the night and then line up and get paid.”

Cirillo has enough headaches without the IRS leaning on him. It had been a long week, he said. “We’re losing people, six in one week we had moments of silence for.”

A funeral service was held at Monadnock on June 27 for 60-year-old Jim Boniface who’d died of cancer. Boniface had won over 200 races throughout New England. The obituary reported his favorite expression was, “A clean race car is a happy race car.”

Afterward, his son Kyle climbed into his father’s “88” car and did two laps holding a checkered flag out the window.

The next night he got into his own “27” car and finished second in Lightning Stocks.

For some, the races do go on even when it rains.

Video link

For an inside-the-car look of Julia Raymond racing at Monadnock go to: http://tinyurl.com/k9ygf6f

If you go ...

Monadnock Speedway is about 25 miles north of Greenfield, a trip that takes a little over 30 minutes.

Directions: From Greenfield, Rote 91 to Exit 28-A

Follow Route 10 for about 4.5 miles to the intersection of Routes 10 & 63

Stay on Route 10 through Northfield to Winchester four miles to Monadnock Speedway, which is on the left off Route 10

When: Saturdays at 6 p.m. except July 19 (4 p.m.) and Sept. 27 (2 p.m.) Also, the track is closed July 12 for its summer break.

Cost: $15, adults; $10, seniors 65 or older; $5, 13 to 18; Free, 12 & under. Except: July 19, $30-$20-$5; Aug. 9, $20-$15-$5; Aug. 23, $25-$15-$5

For more information, 603-239-4067. Office hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.


Chip Ainsworth is a freelance writer whose Keeping Score column is a regular feature on The Recorder’s Saturday sports page.

Staff photographer Micky Bedell started at The Recorder in 2014. She can be reached at mbedell@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 273.

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